Tel Aviv: City of Torah and Hasidism

Known as Israel's secular city, Tel Aviv actually has a rich religious past and present.

The Great Synagogue’s 1949 Independence Day Celebrations.

When one reads about Tel Aviv, what usually comes to mind are images of culture and arts: a modern and progressive city, the center of gay life in Israel, a business and economic hub, an international city and location of the embassies of most countries. Tel Aviv is indeed Israel’s economic, cultural, and artistic center, with UNESCO World Heritage Status bestowed upon it on account of the unique architecture of its “White City.” For some, it’s a global city in the making. It is also a city with a rich modern history. Slightly over 110 years old, it is the world’s first modern Hebrew City. Its streets and buildings tell the story of modern Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel: Independence Hall, the first Knesset, The Museum of the Jewish People, the Palmach Museum, and the Kirya, where the Israeli general army staff (Matkal) has been located since the founding of the state. Most people, however, do not think of Judaism when they think of Tel Aviv. Synagogues, yeshivas, and a life lived according to Torah are considered irrelevant to the Tel Aviv ethos.

For Israel’s 70th Independence Day celebrations, the Tel Aviv municipality went out of its way to remind Israelis of “where it all began,” investing millions of shekels in parties, screenings, shows, a night run, and more. To be a part of these events, we, the governing committee of Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue, asked to hold a reconstruction of the festive 1949 Independence Day prayer. Unfortunately, the municipality had forgotten this part of the city’s history; most of them didn’t know what we were talking about. On the morning of Israel’s first Independence Day, in 1949, the main celebrations took place inside the Great Synagogue, attended by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, Knesset members, and the country’s chief rabbis. This was the first time that the special Independence Day prayer, which has been used ever since in Israeli and Diaspora synagogues, was recited. The original text, written by Tel Aviv’s then Chief Rabbi (and later Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel), Isser Yehuda Unterman, is housed in the synagogue’s archive. Back then, the synagogue, which can host 1,000 congregants, was full every Shabbat and holiday, with hundreds gathering there for daily prayers.

Today, the Great Synagogue receives the recognition it deserves. It is part of the city’s Independence Trail, and the municipality has plans to renovate the building. There is much more to Tel Aviv’s Jewish history, though. Tel Aviv was once the spiritual and religious center of the State of Israel. As I will show below, religious spiritual life and traditional Judaism have always been present in the city, even today.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, Tel Aviv had around 700 active synagogues, many located on the most important streets in the city, like the Allenby, Rothschild, and Dizengoff synagogues. Every Friday night and Saturday afternoon, thousands of Jews wearing prayer shawls, yarmulkes, and top hats walked these streets on their way to synagogue for Sabbath prayers. We can learn about the role these synagogues played in shaping the city’s atmosphere from the strategy adopted by the city’s legendary first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, for building the Great Synagogue in the 1920s. He imposed a special tax (without any legal basis) on the city’s merchants, arguing that it was unimaginable to have a Hebrew city without a synagogue to guide it. The residents gladly paid this tax, which helped start the building process. For many years, the police prevented cars passing the section closest to the synagogue on Allenby Street during Sabbath and holiday prayer times. The municipality even published adverts across the city, asking the residents to respect the sanctity of the Sabbath in public spaces. In a famous video filmed in June 1969, of the celebrations that followed the selection of Ovadia Yosef as the city’s chief rabbi, thousands of children can be seen lining the sides of the roads with flags in their hands. Yosef himself is seen riding an official convertible with the mayor by his side. This would be unimaginable today.

In the early days of the city, dozens of famous rabbis, yeshiva heads, and religious judges were active in Tel Aviv. Five of Israel’s chief rabbis were first chief rabbis of the city: Rabbi Abraham Isaak Kook, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the aforementioned Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren. All of them had a major influence on the Jewish world, and remain rightly revered to this day. More recently, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Rabbi Shlomo Amar served as chief rabbis of the city before becoming chief rabbis of the country, while Rabbi Yona Metzger served as rabbi of the city’s northern neighborhoods before becoming Israel’s chief rabbi.

During those years, dozens of religious educational institutions for girls and boys were founded, headed by a few famous yeshivas, some still active today. One of the most famous yeshivas, the “Yishuv Hadash” yeshiva, was founded in 1937 by Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel (of blessed memory), Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi. A large number of the students came from families that lived outside of the city, religious families from the Yishuv (in contrast to the old communities in Jerusalem, Tiberias etc.), and combined general studies with religious studies. Many famous figures, including dozens of religious judges, city rabbis, judges and more graduated from this yeshiva, which still exists today. The current chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, himself born in Tel Aviv, is also a graduate of this yeshiva.

Aside from these rabbis, more than 20 rebbes (spiritual leaders of the Hasidic movement) have lived in Tel Aviv at some point. During the 1950s, there were as many if not more rebbes in Tel Aviv than Jerusalem. The Husiatyn Beit Midrash was located next to the old Tel Aviv Municipality building on Bialik Square; the Modzitz Beit Midrash was located next to the Dizengoff Center (it is still active today, although the rebbe and most of his disciples have moved to Bnei Brak); and the Belz Beit Midrash is in the middle of Ahad Ha’am Street, close to Rothschild Boulevard. The fourth rebbe of the dynasty, Rebbe Aharon Rokach, who came to the Land of Israel in 1944, turned down his disciples’ request that he live in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, insisting on living in Tel Aviv on the grounds that it had no mosque or church but hundreds of synagogues and a thriving Jewish community. With time, a new center was built in Jerusalem, but dozens of families from the community still live in the old center, and maintain a thriving Jewish life. The largest Hasidic dynasty in Israel, Gur, had ten shtiebels (small prayer houses) in the city, as well as many community and educational institutions, with hundreds of families living in the city. Today, many of them have moved to the north of Tel Aviv.

When I came to Tel Aviv a decade ago, I didn’t know anything about this history. It began to gloriously reveal itself to me as I walked the streets and saw the synagogue halls in all their grandeur, commemorating the names of the thousands of worshipers who built and maintained their buildings. I frequently open conversations with famous religious figures by commenting on Tel Aviv’s spiritual life. I often receive astounded looks from my interlocutors, as if to say: “Are you really going to tell me about Tel Aviv, the city I was born and raised?” This happened with MK Moshe Gafni, head of the Degel HaTorah party, and with a Hassidic rebbe, from Brooklyn’s Borough Park, who does not recognize the State of Israel. When he heard that I was a rabbi in Tel Aviv, he asked to talk to me in Hebrew, greatly surprising his disciples who had insisted on speaking in Yiddish. He was thrilled to be able to share his childhood experiences of Tel Aviv.

The religious neighborhoods of Tel Aviv are older than the city itself. Whoever wanders the streets of Neve Tzedek, Shabazi, or Kerem HaTeimanim (the Yemenite Quarter) today sees dozens of old synagogues, most of them more than 100 years old. These neighborhoods were built as suburbs of Jaffa more than 20 years before Tel Aviv was established, and were later attached to the new city. While writing these lines, a sexton from a synagogue in Neve Tzedek summoned me to a high-rise construction site, to see the synagogue where the first chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (of blessed memory) used to pray. Nearby, the first wave of immigrants from Yemen at the end of the nineteenth century built the Kerem HaTeimanim and Shabazi neighborhoods, north of Jaffa. Rabbi Shalom Shabazi was one of the great Yemenite poets and Torah scholars. Practically all of the immigrants were observant Jews. They built dozens of synagogues, in which famous Yemenite rabbis, teachers and scholars were active. One of them was Rabbi Shalom Yitzhak Halevi, son of Yemen’s chief rabbi, who served as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv’s Yemenite community until his death in the 1970s. He also served as a religious judge in the rabbinic court, and as a member of the council of the chief rabbinate of Israel. To the south, the neighborhood of Florentine was built as a suburb of Jaffa by traditional Jews from Greece, later joined by immigrants from North Africa, Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan), and other places. There too, many synagogues were built, and a vibrant traditional life took hold. In recent decades, though, the character of all these neighborhoods has changed, and many of the synagogues now stand empty.

Religious life can also be felt in later neighborhoods. In the 1930s, Yemenite families from Kerem HaTeimanim, with other Mizrahi immigrants, built the Hatikva neighborhood in southeast Tel Aviv. This neighborhood was only annexed to the city after the establishment of Israel, as the Tel Aviv municipality refused to annex it prior to that. Synagogues can be found here and in other, even younger neighborhoods like Kfar Shalem and Yad Eliyahu. These communities are still active, with hundreds of worshipers, dozens of religious schools, and a traditional atmosphere.

As I hinted above, the religious communities began to leave Tel Aviv in the 1970s. Many of them left for nearby Bnei Brak, which replaced Tel Aviv as “the city of Torah and Hasidic dynasties.” What place, then, does spiritual and religious life have today in Tel Aviv? What is the status of the many synagogues built in the city? Are there any remnants of the glorious communities that once prospered here? Today, Tel Aviv has around 500 active synagogues. Most of them are active all week long; a few only on Shabbat and holidays. More than 10 percent of the city’s residents voted in the last municipal elections for religious or Haredi parties, while other religious residents vote for non-religious parties. Tel Aviv is a large and diverse city, especially compared to its smaller, more homogeneous neighbors. Many of its religious residents live in the south of the city. In these neighborhoods, one sees many synagogues and religious educational institutions. What about the center and north of the city, the outposts of secularism where every stereotype I mentioned at the start of my essay can be found? These areas include the “White City,” the national theater, Independence Hall, the Tel Aviv municipality building and more. Parades, runs, and protests are held in these neighborhoods. Hundreds of businesses, restaurants, and supermarkets—many of them open on Shabbat—are located there. And, as described above, it is where the great rebbes, rabbis, and communities of Tel Aviv lived until their departure from the city in the 1970s.

I have already mentioned the communities who have remained in these areas to the present day. But there were also many synagogues that were left abandoned, while those that remained open could barely sustain a small minyan. In the last 20 years, however, these synagogues have been renewed in a way that is uniquely Tel Avivian. None of the synagogues have been closed. They are slowly being renovated; although many of them are usually partially filled, some of them are totally full on Shabbat and holidays, and some new houses of prayer have been opened. This is due to the swell of new immigrants from Europe and the United States, bringing with them a communal culture—particularly immigrants from France, many of them observant. In addition, certain processes underway in Israeli society have led many young people to visit synagogues. In recent years, the number of Israelis defining themselves as “secular” has grown over the number defining themselves as “traditional.” This is particularly clear in Tel Aviv, and is why sights seen in the last century—like the efforts made by the city’s mayors to build synagogues and observe the Shabbat in public, or the chief rabbi’s inauguration parade—are unthinkable in the city today. This change is accompanied by a fear of religion, and a campaign against hadata—religious coercion—by NGOs and activists, who target every religious element in educational institutions, the IDF, and in broader Israeli society. On the other hand there are those who never left, continuing the traditionalism that characterized Tel Aviv until the 1970s. Finally, many people are returning to religion. There are dozens of rabbis inspiring newly religious people. In the center of Tel Aviv is the Avir Yaakov community, led by Rabbi Mordechai Auerbach, a near-octogenarian rabbinic genius who, without his own court or public relations team, and without dishing out blessings or handing out talismans, has managed to form a community made up of hundreds of newly observant men and women. There are other similar communities in the city.

A new “traditional” lifestyle has developed in Tel Aviv: young men and women from all across the country, who grew up in religious families and moved to the city to live alongside Diaspora immigrants who sought to preserve communal life, particularly on Shabbat and holidays. Some members do not strictly observe the Shabbat; after shul, some may go to the beach. But they still want to belong to a religious community. These are the people who are renewing the synagogues of Tel Aviv.

Because of their youth, they have brought a new personality to the synagogues. Many synagogues now invest in Shabbat dinners and community events. There are even special synagogues for single men and women. The old definition of what makes a “community member” is no longer valid in Tel Aviv. In the past, a community member had a permanent seat in the synagogue and prayed there every Sabbath and holiday, and often during the week too. Now, members choose the prayer or other activities that suit them. Young rabbis, whether Israeli or Diaspora-born, serve these communities with gentleness, acceptance, and love, organizing Shabbat dinners, Torah lessons, communal prayer and more. Today, there are around 50 thriving synagogues in the heart of Tel Aviv. A snapshot of three of these, which are representative of dozens more, gives a clear sense of Tel Aviv’s religious history and grassroots renewal.

With more than 1,000 seats, the Great Synagogue served as the lead synagogue of the city for decades. It used to fill with worshipers every Shabbat and holiday, and hosted celebrations of important national and international events. But since the 1970s, the number of worshipers dwindled, to such an extent that except for a small minyan of 15 worshipers every Shabbat morning, it was virtually closed at the start of the new millenium. Six years ago, Shlomo Pivko, the chief cantor for the Israeli Police (who grew up attending to the Great Synagogue), together with myself and Avi Eisenberg, the synagogue’s CEO, started work on renovating the synagogue. The synagogue now offers prayer services, Shabbat and holiday events, and hosts visits from the Tel Aviv chief rabbi, Israel’s chief rabbis, state and city leaders, ministers, and public figures. It has once again becoming a center for all Tel Avivians. During last year’s High Holidays, almost 2,000 men and women from all walks of life and ages and religious observances participated in the slichot achronot. The Northern Central Synagogue on Ben Yehuda street in Tel Aviv is also one of the oldest in the city. It used to have a waiting list for its 250 seats, even though there were three larger synagogues within walking distance. It used to be known as the prayer place of senior officers in the Israeli security forces, as they lived in these neighborhoods. The synagogue closed ten years ago, due to both a lack in worshipers and the building’s rickety condition. The old synagogue manger, together with one young worshiper, managed to restore the building; five young people, residents of the area, agreed to take managerial responsibilities for the synagogue from the  synagogue manager. Adopting the Tel Avivian community spirit, 300 men and women participated in the Kiddush prayer every Shabbat, especially singles and young couples. Midweek activities include daily prayer services and classes. The “Yehezkel” synagogue on Arnon Street, near the famous Gordon Beach, differs from the first two in its modest size, with only a few dozen seats. Founded as an Ashkenazi synagogue, it was almost shut down completely years ago. Rabbi Aryeh Levin—great grandson of the famous “prisoners’ rabbi” of the Mandate era—was appointed to rejuvenate the synagogue. Following the arrival of a wave of French immigrants in nearby streets, the synagogue changed the prayer style (nusach) to the Sephardic (Mizrahi) style. Today, the synagogue is active daily, from morning to night, with prayers, Torah lessons, and memorial services, with worshipers often standing outside due to the building’s small size.

There is no doubt that many of the city’s residents continue to feel a distance between themselves and the Jewish tradition, the Torah, the mitzvahs, and the synagogues—a distance we tend to associate with the spirit of Tel Aviv. But this picture leaves out the traditionalist Tel Avivians who never left the city, the new arrivals from the Diaspora with traditionalist perspectives, and those turning to religion. Compared to the period between the 1970s and 2000s, the last decade has seen an increasing number of Tel Avivians for whom religion and the synagogue constitute an important part of their lives. For those of us committed to Jewish tradition, this is a sign that perhaps one day Tel Aviv will once again be a center of Jewish action and the traditional experience will once again be a part of the experience of Tel Aviv, as it was in the past.

Translated by Maayan Eitan.


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